Many today reject the idea that the Bible is the Word of God. While some people believe the Bible is true and authoritative, others view the Bible as legend, folklore, and unreliable history. Is the Bible the clever invention of early Christians, or is it a reliable historical record of the life and teachings of Jesus and His disciples?
The New Testament contains twenty-seven books written by the apostles of Jesus or their close associates. The first four books are called the Gospels, which are four separate accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The book of Acts records how the apostles and evangelists spread the message of Jesus after His return to Heaven. The rest of the New Testament books are letters written to various individuals or churches. All these books were written in the first century, sometime after the death of Jesus around AD 30. This article considers some evidence for the reliability of these books.
1. The New Testament Writings Have Been Reliably Preserved
How do we know that the New Testament we have today is what the original authors wrote? The original writings were copied and recopied by hand for many centuries. While most of these copies no longer exist, a remarkable number have survived and give strong witness to the fact that the original writings have been accurately preserved. There are over 5,800 copies of the New Testament in Greek (the original language of the New Testament) that were made between the second century and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. In addition there are over 10,000 copies written in Latin and thousands of copies in other languages.
When compared to the number of copies that exist for other ancient Greek and Latin writings, the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is impressive. Most other classical writings are preserved in only a few dozen to several hundred copies. If the average number of manuscripts for a classical author would be stacked up beside all the New Testament manuscripts that are known to exist, the stack for the classic author would be four feet high and the New Testament manuscripts would be nearly a mile high!1
Furthermore, the oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament date much closer to the time when the original text was written than is the case with other ancient writings. Often the earliest known copies of classical texts were made many centuries after the original composition. But there are dozens of New Testament manuscripts that were copied within two hundred fifty years after the original writing.2
The earliest known New Testament manuscript is a fragment from the Gospel of John which scholars have dated to the early second century. The discovery of this fragment in 1934 helped to overturn the opinion of some prominent German scholars who believed that John was written about AD 160—and therefore was not an eyewitness account of Jesus. But the newly discovered copy was earlier than that date and only a few decades removed from the lifetime of the apostle John. And the fact that the copy was found in Egypt, far away from the area where John’s Gospel was originally written, indicates that the book had already been in circulation for many years.3 The claims of the critics were devastated. One scholar quipped that the discovery of this small fragment “sent two tons of German scholarship to the flames.”
Among the many manuscripts of the New Testament there is a high degree of agreement as to the wording of the text. When scribes made copies of the manuscripts, they sometimes made mistakes. But by comparing the many manuscripts with each other, scholars can almost always determine the original wording. Even a leading critic of the New Testament admits, “The essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”4
The number of New Testament manuscripts, the antiquity of those manuscripts, and the agreement in the wording of those manuscripts are evidence that the New Testament writings have been reliably preserved. If the New Testament were to be rejected as unreliably preserved, every other book from antiquity would also have to be rejected as unreliable.
2. The New Testament Records Are Historically Accurate
It is one thing to know that we have a reliable copy of the original writings of the New Testament. But is what the original authors wrote accurate? Were they recording actual historical events, or were they recording folklore and legends about Jesus and His disciples?
When Sir William Ramsay arrived in Asia Minor in 1879 to begin archaeological research, he viewed the book of Acts as the imaginative creation of some Christian in the second half of the second century. He believed that the New Testament was not something that would be of historical value to him as an archaeologist.
But he began to doubt his assumptions about the New Testament when he noticed Acts 14:1-12. In this passage Luke (the author of Acts) recounts that Paul left the city of Iconium and went into the region of Lycaonia. Critics believed Iconium was also in Lycaonia, and so Luke was mistaken when he said that Paul entered Lycaonia after leaving Iconium. But Ramsay found that in fact Iconium was in Phrygia—not Lycaonia—and that the people of Iconium even spoke a different language than was spoken in Lycaonia. Luke was correct in what he said.
This set Ramsay to investigating the book of Acts. Slowly he was forced to change his opinion of Luke as a historian. He eventually concluded that Luke was a historian of the first rank, and that the events he recorded were accurate history.5
Many of the details recorded throughout the New Testament reveal that the authors were intimately familiar with life in the first-century. They accurately describe the political leaders, religious sects, social customs, architecture, and geography of the time. It would have been very difficult for a second century writer to so accurately describe life in the first century.
For example, Luke 3:1 says that in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. The existence of this ruler was disputed until an inscription was found that named Lysanias during the reign of Tiberias.6 In Acts 17:6, Luke called the rulers of the city politarchs (translated as “rulers of the city” in the KJV). Again, critics questioned the accuracy of using this term until inscriptions were discovered that confirmed that politarch was the correct title for first-century officials at Thessalonica.7 At Corinth the Jews brought Paul before the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12). This ruler is named in an inscription found at Delphi in which the emperor Claudius calls Gallio his friend and the proconsul of Achaia.8 And in Romans 16:23 Paul describes his companion Erastus as the treasurer (chamberlain) of the city. An inscription from about AD 50 was found at Corinth stating that Erastus, a city treasurer, personally paid for an area to be paved with stone.9
Evidence for the reliability of the four Gospels can also been seen in the consistency that exists among them. The four Gospels are different enough to show that the authors were independent witnesses, not liars collaborating to make sure they said the same thing. Yet the way that minor details from different accounts fit together indicates that the Gospels are not folktales, but rather the reports of eyewitnesses who could accurately recall the details of what they saw and heard.
For example, Mark 6:39 says that when Jesus fed the five thousand, He had them sit on “the green grass.” This insignificant detail coincides with John 6:4, which records that this event took place near the time of Passover, which occurred near the end of the rainy season when the countryside would have been verdant.
Also, Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, features prominently in the accounts of Jesus’ birth. But the last time Joseph is present in any of the Gospel accounts is when Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem when He was twelve years old (Luke 2:43). After this, Jesus’ mother and siblings are mentioned numerous times, but Joseph is not (Matthew 12:46; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19; John 2:12, 19:26; Acts 1:14). If people were making up these later stories about Jesus, wouldn’t some of them have included Joseph, the head of the family? The fact that all of the writers omit Joseph’s name suggests that they were relying—not on imaginative retellings of legends—but on historically accurate reports in which Joseph was absent.
Another coincidence of insignificant details is found in the account of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Matthew 26:69-71 records that two maids identified Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Why maids? John 18:15-17 includes a detail that helps to explain why a maid would be the one to identify Peter. In John’s account, a well-known disciple asked the maid that kept the door to let Peter in, and thereby the maid was alerted to Peter’s identity.
The accounts in Luke and John of Jesus’ trial before Pilate also harmonize with one another in the details that each records. In John 18:33, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But John gives no reason why Pilate would think to ask such a question. Luke shows that there was a reason, namely, that the Jews had accused Jesus before Pilate of claiming to be a King (Luke 23:2). Luke’s account continues by describing how Jesus admits to being a King, but then proceeds to report that Pilate said, “I find no fault in this man” (Luke 23:3-4). Why would Pilate acquit a man who just admitted to treason? Details recorded in John 18:33-38 help to explain this anomaly. Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is “not of this world” and does not use violence. So Pilate became convinced that Jesus was harmless. Again, two accounts are found to harmonize in detail. It is hard to imagine that such vivid agreement would exist among these small details if the Gospels were not factual eyewitness reports.
The New Testament has been shown to be accurate to the point that it violates the way that myths and legends were typically told. The ability of the writers to accurately relate both significant and insignificant historical details indicates that they were recording eyewitness testimony.
3. The New Testament Authors are Credible Eyewitnesses
Can the writers of the New Testament be trusted to have honestly told the truth, or did they have motives to deliberately falsify the truth? Were they the sort of people who would make up these stories? Or is there evidence that they were being absolutely honest even to their own detriment? Let’s consider the evidence.
First, it is unlikely that any first-century Jew would come up with the idea of a crucified Messiah. The Jews (including the disciples) fully expected their Messiah to be a conquering king. The idea that the Messiah was crucified was obnoxious to the Jews (Matthew 16:21-22; 1 Corinthians 1:23). And the message that Jesus rose from the dead was often met with anger, scorn, and derision (Acts 4:2, 17:32, 26:24). If the first disciples had sat down to make up a story, they would not have created a story about a crucified Messiah who rose from the dead. There must have been more than a little truth behind the message the disciples preached.
Second, people often distort the truth to put the “good guys” in the best light possible. But the New Testament authors report embarrassing facts about Jesus and the apostles. Jesus is said to be a lowly carpenter from the despised town of Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23; Mark 6:3; John 1:46, 7:52). At various times the apostles are portrayed as ignorant, faithless, and quarrelsome (Matthew 15:16, 17:20, Mark 4:40, 9:32; Luke 22:24). When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples forsook Him and fled (Mark 14:50). Peter, who had promised that he was willing to die with Jesus, instead swore that he did not know Jesus (Mark 14:31,71). Would such incriminating facts have been told if the writers were not committed to telling the truth?
Third, the apostles were willing to suffer and die because they preached that they had seen Jesus after He rose from the dead. Would they die for a message that was false? Now someone might say, “Of course, many people are willing to die for religious convictions that are false.” That is true. But the apostles are different from modern religious martyrs in this regard: the apostles were able to know whether or not they were telling the truth. That is, they knew whether they really had seen the resurrected Jesus—or were lying. And while men may die for a lie that they believe is true, men do not die for a lie that they know is a lie. The disciples had nothing to gain if they were lying about the resurrection. They did not gain wealth or power or pleasure. They gained suffering and death.
Someone might say, “Yes, the apostles believed they saw Jesus, but they were only hallucinating.” Perhaps one or two people might hallucinate, but not a crowd. There were many witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. If one or two of these witnesses were distorting the facts, the testimony of those who were not hallucinating surely should have set the record straight.
Fourth, not only the apostles, but also those who believed the preaching of the apostles suffered and died for their faith. The stakes were high. Accepting the apostles’ message meant breaking with sacred traditions in a way that was offensive to both Jewish and pagan sensibilities. The consequences were often suffering and even death. No doubt, potential converts would have had the good sense to question and verify the authenticity of the message before accepting it. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, in AD 64 Nero “inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”10 These early Christians did not survive such suffering and death by believing tales invented by an anonymous crowd of storytellers.
Polycarp, the bishop of the church of Smyrna, lived to be an old man. He had heard some of the apostles preach and had conversed with many who had seen Christ. When he was arrested the Roman proconsul urged him, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ.” But Polycarp declared, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” And so Polycarp was condemned to die in the flames.11 Early Christians such as he were in a better position than we are to know whether the message about Jesus was being preached by credible eyewitnesses or by hucksters.
Fifth, no credible counter-witnesses came forward to falsify the record of the New Testament. Luke began his Gospel by stating that he was setting out to record what had been told to him by those “which from the beginning were eyewitnesses” and that he “had perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:2-3). Luke not only claimed historical accuracy for his records, but he put those records in writing where they could come under the scrutiny of those who would refute his records if they could. In the first century there were many who did not believe in Jesus, who were hostile to Christianity, and who would have refuted the eyewitness accounts of the apostles if they were indeed false.
The ancient world was opposed to Christianity for three centuries. To eradicate it, all they needed to do was to provide convincing evidence that the New Testament records were fabricated. They did not. Neither the Jews nor the Greeks nor the Romans in those centuries procured the evidence needed to disprove the eyewitness accounts of the New Testament.
In conclusion, we believe that the New Testament is the inspired Word of God. The evidence for the reliability of the New Testament supports this belief. The evidence for the accurate preservation of the original writings of the New Testament exceeds the evidence for other ancient books. In those points where the historical facts of the New Testament can be compared to archaeological data, the New Testament has been found to be accurate. The number of historical details included in the Gospels and Acts indicates that the authors were recording factual history, not legends and myths. And the eyewitness reports recorded in the New Testament withstood the scrutiny of skeptical and hostile audiences in the first centuries after Christ.
The New Testament contains the life-giving, hope-filled message of Jesus Christ. It declares that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to show to the world the love that He has for us and to show us the way to eternal life. It is worth reading today.
1. Daniel B. Wallace, “How Tall Would a Stack of New Testament Manuscripts Be?” 1 January 2023. https://danielbwallace.com/2023/01/01/how-tall-would-a-stack-of-new-testament-manuscripts-be/
2. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 34-35.
3. Ibid., 38-39.
4. “Q & A with Bart Ehrman,” in Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 252.
5. W. Ward Grasque, Sir William M. Ramsay: Archaeologist and New Testament Scholar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1966). https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ramsay/ramsay_gasque.pdf
6. John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1991), 160.
7. Ibid., 295.
8. Ibid., 226-227.
9. Ibid., 331.
10. Tacitus Annals 15.44.
11. “Martyrdom of Polycarp.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Martyrdom-of-Polycarp